Leaps of faith: Christians and Jews reaching out to Muslims after 9/11

It’s a phenomenon that cropped up shortly after the terror attacks, and the New York Times looks at how it has played out in some communities:

When Betsy Wiggins opened her front door and saw the woman in a full black face veil coming up her flower-lined walkway, she wondered if she had done the right thing.

It was 11 days after 9/11, and Mrs. Wiggins, a speech pathologist and the wife of a Methodist minister in Syracuse, had called the local mosque and invited a Muslim woman she did not know over for coffee.

She and the Muslim woman, Danya Wellmon, a medical lab technician, sat in the Wigginses’ breakfast nook for hours and talked about their faith, their careers, their children — and their mutual despair over the terrorist attacks. They bonded that day, and decided that they should start a broader discussion. As a next step, Ms. Wellmon invited nine Muslim women, and Ms. Wiggins invited nine others (Christians, Jews, one Buddhist and an Ismaili Muslim) to join them for a potluck dinner by the big stone fireplace in the living room.

In Syracuse, as in countless other communities, 9/11 set off a phenomenon that may seem counterintuitive in an era of increasingly vocal Islamophobia. A terrorist attack that provoked widespread distrust and hostility toward Muslims also brought Muslims in from the margins of American religious life — into living rooms, churches, synagogues and offices where they had never set foot before.

American Christians and Jews reached out to better understand Islam and — they will admit — to find out firsthand whether the Muslims in their midst were friends or foes. Muslims also reached out, newly conscious of their insularity, aware of the suspicions of their neighbors, determined that the ambassadors of Islam should not be the terrorists.

“Before 9/11 we were somewhat timid,” said Saad Sahraoui, president of the Islamic Society of Central New York, the largest mosque in Syracuse, when the attacks occurred in 2001. “We just kept to ourselves, just concerned with our families and our children.

“Sept. 11 changed the whole thing,” he said, and hesitated before adding, worried it could be misconstrued, “but the change was in some ways positive.”

In the months and years after 9/11, in communities large and small, mosques opened their doors for Friday prayers and iftar dinners to break the Ramadan fast. Churches and synagogues deluged imams with speaking requests. Muslim, Jewish and Christian performers hit the clubs on comedy tours.

“There are so many interfaith councils and projects now, we can’t even keep track,” said Bettina Gray, chairwoman of the North American Interfaith Network. “From the Muslim side, there’s more incentive to work with the broader community, and there’s more receptiveness from the Christian and Jewish side.”

In Syracuse, like most other places, the road to interfaith understanding was full of bumps. When Ms. Wellmon tried finding nine Muslim women to join her, she said she had to “browbeat” some of them into it. As a white convert, Ms. Wellmon did not find it a stretch to have coffee with Mrs. Wiggins. But the other women in the mosque were immigrants from the Middle East, Asia and Africa, and were not accustomed to speaking with outsiders about their religion.

Read more.


  1. You cannot “coexist” when they are trying to kill you. I will be more than disappointed if the Catholic Church falls for or has anything good to say about Islam.

  2. Deacon Greg Kandra says:


    Prepare to be disappointed. From 2006, Pope Benedict had this to say in a general audience:

    “I hope that my profound respect for the great religions and, in particular, for Muslims … has become clear,” the pope said. It is Muslims, he added, “who worship the one God and with whom we promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values for the benefit of all humanity.”

    Google “Pope Benedict” and “Muslims” and you’ll find more.

    Dcn. G.

  3. lorigonzo:

    “…if the Catholic Church has anything good to say about Islam.”

    Actually, the Church did in the Vatican II document, Declaration on the Relation of the Church and Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate, 3). The document lists the points in common but does not underestimate the problems.

    “Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems (sic), this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.”

  4. Interesting that a project that promotes understanding and dialogue is initiated by WOMEN? Well, how about that?

  5. The way this article is written, it sounds as though it’s a group for Christian and Jewish women to learn about and accept the Muslim religion. I’m just curious if the Muslims are “reaching out” to the other religions as is being done towards them.

    One thing that really gets in my craw is how Muslims who are terrorists do not appear to be denounced / excommunicated (or equivalent) from that religion. Recently, I’ve seen two cases of Muslims speaking on TV/radio about terrorism. One called the World Trade Center attack “an unfortunate incident.” And the other said that the “vast majority of Muslims frown upon terrorism.” And both times they were not called out by the hosts of the shows.

    As a Catholic, I am often asked what are my thoughts about the priest abuse scandal. I can only imagine the reaction if I said it was unfortunate, or that I frown upon priests abusing children. I can’t speak for other Catholics, but no one has ever “reached out” to me to understand my faith after a local priest is arrested on sex charges.

    Chatting with someone about wearing a veil or discussing who eats or doesn’t eat pork sounds nice and good. But it doesn’t address the issue of why do some people use this religion as an excuse to kill people? This post probably appears anit-Muslim, but I’m not. I’m just having trouble understanding why I need to stroke the ego of a religion that has done a pretty lousy job of pushing out this evil that exists within it.

    Ok, I’ll stop rambling and venting here…

  6. Richard Johnson says:

    hannajo #5: “One thing that really gets in my craw is how Muslims who are terrorists do not appear to be denounced / excommunicated (or equivalent) from that religion.”

    With respect, I suggest that you might not be looking in the right place. Certainly the media is not going to give you this information. You have to look for it. But it is there, in bulk.






    Muslim leaders throughout the world have roundly condemned terrorism for as long as I can recall (back to the Munich Olympics attack). It’s unfortunate that our media does not give more attention to this, because it allows the meme about lack of condemnation to continue unchallenged.

  7. Deacon Norb says:

    Re: hannajo #5

    “I’m just curious if the Muslims are “reaching out” to the other religions as is being done towards them.”

    Reaching out? Far more than you might believe — particularly on the “grass-roots” level — like this story suggests. Forget about what you read in the papers of see on TV. Go out and ask religious leaders of Christian and Jewish congregations that are located in towns with recognized Islamic congregations. In fact, right after 9/11 there was an aggressive public relations effort by all of the mosques in northwestern Ohio and Southeastern Michigan to counter some of the “push-the-panic-button” hype of the national media.

    ALSO, pay attention to what a number of knowledgeable commentators on Dcn Greg’s blogs have already said about Islam. IT HAS NO CENTRAL AUTHORITY AT ALL! There is no one person or one structure that can at all claim to speak on the behalf of a even as much as a fourth — much less the majority — of the followers of this religion.

  8. Christianity is an evangelistic religion. The heart of the gospel is to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, convert and accept that he died, rose again and now seats at right hand of God. The Moslem religion is a religion that calls to submission and it’s exclusive. According to Islam God has no Son and Christ did not die on the cross for our sins. Either one is false and the other true but not both are true. We can respect each other, live next to each other, but as Christians we are called to announce the Gospel to all, and as Muslims they are called to submit infidels. We can learn from each other, but we can never compromise our core beliefs without apostasaizing from our religions calls. Do we Christians renounce calling all to believe in Jesus Christ for the sakes of coexistence?

  9. Deacon Norb says:

    Re: Rudy #6

    Perhaps you might remember from your study of Church history an event that occurred in 1219 in Damietta — a Mediterranean port city now within the territorial limits of modern day Egypt.

    Saint Francis of Assisi went out of his way to make a pilgrimage there to visit the throne of Sultan Malik-al-Kamil — a senior leader of Islam during his era.

    Francis’ person was never threatened — in fact, he was received with great joy and warmth. Neither side attempted to convert the other at all. Both were delighted in the other’s presence. I have actually seen icons commemorating that event.

    In fact, you might remember Francis personal motto: “Preach the Gospel always; use words only if you have to.”

  10. pagansister says:

    All religions are made up of extremists—who give their particular faith a lousy reputation. I’m glad the folks above are doing what they are doing. Not all Muslims are “bad” and want to kill us. Everything should continue to be done with respect to dialogue between all faiths….

  11. I’m more than disappointed. Jesus, Himself would not allow Islam into or have anything to do with the Catholic Church. I’m disgusted.

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